Bethany moves to alter parking, driveway regs

Bethany Beach’s somewhat notorious — and yet relatively unknown — ordinance requiring the registration of driveways with the town may be on its way out. The recommendation to drop the rule came from the town’s Traffic and Parking Committee at its Jan. 14 meeting.

They were originally planning to give the Bethany Beach Town Council a “white paper” full of information and recommendations but, with recommendations only for minimal change coming from Town Manager Cliff Graviet and Public Safety Officer Ralph Mitchell, they decided instead to iron things out with a last bit of discussion and then make a formal recommendation to the council.

That recommendation was to deal with the thorny issue of how to designate driveways by expanding the town’s driveway marking program — at least in the areas where the town requires permits or meters for parking. Already completed in eastern areas of the town — with a few exceptions for non-conforming use — the marking program would now require property owners on western streets with permit or metered parking to designate a 20-foot total expanse of driveway for the town to officially mark.

The resulting markings will indicate the no-parking areas on the streets and thus help keep the homeowners’ driveways clear of parked cars. They will also make it easier for police officers to determine who is legally or illegally parked.

The requirement to register the driveways has its origins in the town’s historical practice of having many driveways as part of sand or grass yards, with no difference in materials or other types of markings. Though most driveways are now constructed of differing materials, many property owners have followed the requirement to register them with the town.

The problem is more complex on the west side of the town, where many of the driveways are non-conforming — specifically in size. The new requirements for some of the west-side streets will force some of the non-conforming driveways to come into compliance, just as it did on the east side. But U-shaped driveways will still be allowed — as long as the two entrances total no more than 20 feet (i.e. 10 feet wide at each entrance).

The other major issue before the Traffic and Parking Committee on Jan. 14 was handicapped parking. The town has gathered evidence over the last year that handicapped parking was being widely abused, according to Mitchell. That compounds an existing shortage of handicapped parking — with only 24 spots available in the town.

Mitchell said officers had reported drivers parking their cars in Bethany Beach’s handicapped spots and then boarding the bus for parts unknown, only to return after a whole day gone. They’d seen young surfers pull into handicapped spots, unload their surfboards and spend the entire day surfing. In both situations, the cars had appropriate tags or placards but the people using them were apparently not handicapped.

Officers said they’d also spotted people handing off placards from one person to another — a solid indication that at least one of the drivers was not entitled to handicapped parking. While there is a $100 fine for parking in a handicapped parking spot without a tag or placard, inappropriate use of legitimate tags or placards is a difficult thing to enforce, generally being referred to the state’s Division of Motor Vehicles.

The draw to park in a Bethany Beach handicapped spot? Not just proximity to the beach, boardwalk and shops in the downtown area, but the one additional benefit the town has given to the handicapped who have tags and placards: no need to feed the meter, or pay at all. Indeed, cars with placards or tags can be parked at any legal spot in the town — including a metered spot — without any need to pay.

And that’s the reason why town officials suspect the privilege is being so heartily abused. The proposed solution: take away the incentive of free parking. The desired effect: less desire to park in a handicapped spot when one is not entitled, thus leaving more handicapped spots free for those who legitimately need them. It’s the same change recently put into place in nearby Rehoboth Beach.

It’s a neat solution, but it wasn’t without opponents at the Jan. 14 meeting. Residents Darlene Franklin and Rosemary Cummings both objected to the idea, saying the existing policy made things easier for them, with their legitimate handicaps, since they didn’t have to worry about bringing change or carrying a purse when they parked at the beach.

Cummings said she felt the town’s free-parking rule was a sign of good will toward the handicapped community and emphasized that it made her life easier, since she didn’t have to carry the added weight of purse on already unsteady feet. Franklin repeatedly noted her concern about the town’s elderly population, who were more likely, she said, to be on a fixed income and need the financial relief that not having to pay for parking meters could provide.

But committee members were quick to draw the distinction between a doctor-verified handicap that requires accommodation and any financial need. The two aren’t inherently tied together, they noted, nor is senior status an intrinsic indicator of physical handicap or financial need.

Council and Committee Member Wayne Fuller, however, said he felt the existing exemption should still stay in place.

That there is a shortage of handicapped parking — and parking overall — in the town they all agreed. The larger problem is one the town has been unable to tackle, but they hoped helping to reduce abuse of the existing handicapped parking spots would make a dent in the difficulty for handicapped residents and visitors.

Mitchell said that during the height of the summer some 30 to 50 spots were routinely occupied by cars with handicapped tags or placards — inevitably exceeding the 24 reserved spots available. At the peak of their survey, the number was 57 — more than twice the number of cars that would have dedicated handicapped spaces available for them.

With that need established, it was also clear that even ending abuse of the reserved spots wouldn’t entirely solve the problem for the handicapped. So, the recommendation was made for adding some additional handicapped spots. That number — and their location — would be determined by the council when they vote on the committee’s recommendations at a future meeting. Graviet noted some urgency, since metered parking begins again on May 15.

Committee members voted 4-1, Fuller against, to move the recommendations to end free handicapped parking and add some additional spots forward to the town council. They additionally recommended that the new meters at the dedicated handicapped spots be altered to allow a longer parking period than the current low of two hours and thus limit how often the handicapped driver might be required to return to the spot to feed the meter.

In what was mostly a housekeeping matter, committee members also unanimously agreed to recommend an ordinance change that will make it clear that the town — not homeowners — are responsible for removing and replacing any signs that are in the right-of-way along properties. Graviet said the town had been unable to find any circumstance in which homeowner responsibility would be applicable.

Finally, Council Member and Committee Chairman Jerry Dorfman noted there would likely be a change in the committee’s meeting schedule, moving from Saturdays to Fridays, to better accommodate the presence of town employees for necessary input. The time was to be determined later.